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Jeff Parker: Reinventing Tradition

Jakob Baekgaard By

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Jazz, if nothing else, is a flexible, chameleonic music that has always borrowed from culture, brought it back and reinvented itself, and in turn, transformed what it borrowed from. It is constantly evolving and changing. In this way, history and tradition is made all the time. —Jeff Parker
Is there such a thing as a Chicago sound? Back in the year 2000, a compilation was released that tried to portray a new and exciting musical scene. The album was called Chicago 2018... It's Gonna Change and it highlighted a brilliant mixture of free jazz, electronica, post-rock, art pop and experimental folk music. Of the eighteen different projects on the album, guitarist Jeff Parker was involved in four: Toe 2000, Tricolor, Isotope 217 and Tortoise and one could have included even more music with Parker's stamp on it.

The impressive thing is not that Parker plays and has played in many different constellations, it is the rule rather than the exception in jazz. No, what's special is how Parker is able to navigate naturally between different genres and scenes while he still has a personal sound that he brings to the projects. Past and present, they include playing funky mainstream jazz with drummer Peter Erskine and organist Joey DeFrancesco, cosmic free jazz with trumpeter Rob Mazurek, modern jazz with saxophonist Fred Anderson and sophisticated post-rock with his most profiled band, Tortoise.

Between his many calls as a sideman, Parker has also found time to pursue a career as a leader. Each album in his discography is worth seeking out, but the ones with his own name in the spotlight are among the most rewarding. Especially Parker's recent album, The New Breed (International Anthem, 2016) is perhaps the most organic amalgamation of Parker's many sounds, incorporating both electronic beats, funky rhythms and abstract and melodic playing. By now, Parker has left Chicago for Los Angeles, but he still has an open-minded approach to genres and music and he agreed to answer some questions about his past, present and the future.

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning. Where were you born and how did you get into music?

Jeff Parker: I was born on April 4, 1967 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My parents were teachers, by profession. My father was an avid music fan, and his side of the family was very musical—a lot of people who sang in choirs in school and at church, and played instruments, though none professionally. My Pop had a great and diverse collection of recordings, and his love of music was passed down to me. Some of his records that I gravitated to were by Jimmy Smith, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver and Chico Hamilton. But black radio at the time was rich with soul, funk and R&B and we spent a lot of time listening to that as well.

AAJ: When did you decide to pursue the path of the guitar? Did you take guitar lessons early in the process?

JP: I sang in the youth choir at church, but my first actual instrument was piano. I took a year of lessons, but it wasn't a natural fit for me. Eventually I picked up my older sister's guitar and started plucking out songs by ear, so my father got one of his students, named Jon Spencer, to give me private lessons every week. He was very creative and encouraging, and had me improvising and writing my own songs from the very beginning.

AAJ: As I understand it, you later went to Berklee to study music. How did that come about and what happened with your music during that period of your life?

JP: I went to Berklee because I wanted to learn how to chase the sounds around that I was hearing in my head. Which, I later figured out, was bebop, or this particular advanced African-American improvised harmonic language. I was intrigued by this music from the very beginning, but didn't discover a means to really immerse myself in the learning of it until I got to college in Boston. It was a great time to be there—my community of classmates and roommates were really entrenched in finding our voice within the music, and we were playing all the time.

AAJ: Part of the thing that I find fascinating about your work as a musician is the way you avoid a fixed approach to music and still have your own voice on the guitar. How would describe your own tone and your aesthetic approach to the instrument?

JP: I try to play the guitar with a good tone and clear, simple ideas. I feel that all of my role models in music do the same. I think a good sound transcends any musical style or genre.

AAJ: Did studying at Berklee help to develop the openness you have in terms of approaching music or did you find that the environment was limiting in its perception of the jazz tradition?

JP: I feel that Berklee gave me technical knowledge more than anything else. I learned how to apply that knowledge in a practical sense from interacting with other musicians and playing sessions and doing gigs. Jazz is very challenging to teach in an institution because you can't really separate the music from what was happening socio- politically. The truth in the music always seems to find a way to come out, but the institutions rarely help the process.

AAJ: Later on, in the beginning of the 1990s, you moved to Chicago. How did that happen and how did you become a part of the musical environment in the city?

JP: I moved to Chicago in late 1991, originally as a stopover before moving to New York. Kind of a place to save some money, practice, and do some general soul-searching. I met a lot of musicians working as a clerk in the jazz department at Tower Records. I worked there for about a year and a half, which was about how long it took before musicians started calling me for gigs. I did a record date for Silkheart Records with Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble, and I was able to pay my rent in advance for 6 months so I could figure out how to earn a living as a musician. I started to develop a lot of musical relationships within the Chicago music community, and gradually the idea of a move to New York just withered away.

AAJ: You were instrumental in forming the Chicago Underground that grew out of the jam sessions held at the Green Mill. Could you tell something about these particular sessions, the origin of the Underground and your meeting with trumpeter Rob Mazurek?

JP: I met Rob Mazurek very early into my time in Chicago, probably around 1992. At the time, we were both fully immersed in the Chicago straight-ahead jazz scene (as also was Chad Taylor) and we were playing a lot of pick up gigs together, playing standards and bebop. Rob knew I was involved in some more creative musical pursuits, and he was trying to get away from playing traditional jazz, so he asked me to participate in an afternoon workshop he was putting together at The Green Mill. It wasn't a jam session. It was a composer's workshop where he and I would bring in new compositions for us to work on every week. The Chicago Underground project grew directly out of these workshops.

AAJ: These days, the Underground mostly plays as a duo with Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor, but you are still playing with Rob and you have a record out on Rogueart, Some Jellyfish Live Forever (Rogueart, 2016). Could you tell about this specific record and the experience of playing with Rob Mazurek?

JP: I had an idea to do a series of recordings where I would create a sonic landscape and have a sympathetic soloist improvise within it. I approached Rob with the idea and he got excited, and being the prolific composer that he is, immediately wrote a bunch of music around the concept and it became more collaborative. Rob is one of the most thoughtful improvisers I know. He doesn't just play on top of the music he also plays underneath it and inside of it.

AAJ: In Chicago, you also became a part of the prominent and historically important musical organization, AACM. What did that mean to you and how has it influenced your work and career?

JP: Through my associations with the AACM I realized that I am part of a legacy of Great Black Music. This mostly came from being mentored by Ernest Dawkins, Fred Anderson, Douglas Ewart and George Lewis but also through peers, Nicole Mitchell and Matana Roberts, among others.

AAJ: The great Fred Anderson was a founding member of AACM. You played a lot with him and your playing is also documented on some of his records. What are your memories of Fred? How would you characterize his influence on the musical environment in Chicago?

JP: Fred was someone who really personified a DIY work ethic. He created a place for his own music out of necessity, and a community, subsequently, formed around it. The most striking thing about Fred was his sense of humility. I was very fortunate to get to play with him so much and spend time with him. it's one of the highlights of my musical life.

AAJ: It was also during your time in Chicago that you became a member of the post-rock group, Tortoise. This group is still very active, with a recent record, The Catastrophist (Thrill Jockey, 2016). I won't ask a lot about this group since it is probably the aspect of your work that has been covered the most, but could you tell something about the experience of playing in this group?

JP: My bandmates in tortoise are some of the most creative people I've ever known. I think we all were forced to figure out how to embrace becoming musicians in a digital world.

AAJ: I discovered your work through Tortoise and since moved on to your more jazz- oriented projects. Do you see this spillover effect yourself? Is there a difference between an indie and jazz type of audience or is it more or less the same crowd that attends the concerts?

JP: Tortoise fans were always young and old, punks, beatheads, jazz fans—eclectic music fans in general. It's a much different audience than normal jazz fans.

AAJ: You have been involved in so many projects that it is heard to mention them all, but could you highlight some of the most important, past and present, apart from Tortoise and your own work as a leader?

JP: Brian Blade Fellowship, when tortoise was Tom Zé's backing band was mind-blowing. Isotope 217, Joshua Abrams, Hamid Drake, Geof Bradfield, playing with Bennie Maupin and Patrice Rushen, when Lee Scratch Perry and Mad Professor sat in with Tortoise.

AAJ: In 2003, you released your first record as a leader, Like-Coping (Delmark, 2003). How did that come about and how would characterize the sound on that particular album?
About Jeff Parker
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